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HARDY TAKES FLIGHT

Truth in the flyover states isn’t like on the coasts, the media centers, the places where $22 martinis are de rigueur. HARDY knows that. The working-class kid from Philadelphia, Miss., has become one of modern country’s biggest hit songwriters by drawing a bead on the lower-on-the-hog reality of people who’re busting their asses for their hourly wage.

Beyond Bro Country, that good-ol'-boy, party-hearty wave that rolled through Nashville a decade ago, HARDY stakes his claim as an artist by delivering the consequences of those behaviors with the wry “TRUCK BED” and the more direct “JACK,” as well a playful and more conventional “Beer.” He’s currently lighting up country radio with the staggering “wait in the truck,” his street-justice domestic-violence response featuring CMA Female Vocalist Lainey Wilson, which HITS unpacked in August.

But the mockingbird & THE CROW doesn’t derive its heft from delivering reckoning for rednecks; “wait in the truck,” which should sweep Song of the Year categories, is a sobering portrait of just how ugly wife-beating can be. It’s a brave topic for a genre obsessed with field parties, Daisy Dukes and other good times, but HARDY’s more profound risk-taking comes in the musical choices he’s making.

Knowing the disaffected exurbans—the ones cooking meth, dropping out of society, flexing survivalist skills or just not making ends meet—aren’t looking for a sunny escape, he recognizes the potency their music delivers through an intersection of hard, hard rock and Nashville’s rural themes. This is not the hip-hop coveting that provided Florida Georgia Line or Jason Aldean on “Dirt Road Anthem” a competitive edge; instead, HARDY is annexing the pummeling aggression of Puddle of Mudd, Slipknot and Mudvayne.

It’s why “RADIO SONG,” featuring Jeremy McKinnon from A Day to Remember in an aggro-meltdown that destroys what feels like a basic hit single, elicits such tremors. HARDY cracks the dirtiest little secret many on Music Row don’t want to acknowledge wide open.

“KILL SH!T ’TIL I DIE,” with its bludgeoning guitar parts and screamo punctuations over a descending bridge, is as terse a manifesto as Hank Williams, Jr.’s “A Country Boy Can Survive.” It’s all there: guns, hunting, survivalism, a menacing swagger braced by “the Wal-Mart’s hit the fan.” He’s not playing; he’s speaking for the “deplorables” invisible to the coasts, people dismissed at your own peril.

Some of the tropes remain: the girl over the guy’s nonsense, the good timing, the “out in the country.” But “.30-06,” with its blink-182 crunch, isn’t just about a hunter caring more about getting out there, hunting and shooting; it’s the rock ballast that propels HARDY into new spaces—places mainstream country music has eschewed.

HARDY, BMI and ACM Writer of the Year, understands how to craft hits. Morgan Wallen, who appears on “red,” is a primary beneficiary. THE CROW is a more personal statement. Yes, “i in country” is a perfect terrestrial hit, declaring the power of a girl through the device of there being no “i” but the letters for “you” in the word "country." But “I AIN’T IN THE COUNTRY NO MORE” drops into a minor key, employing a foreboding, wiry guitar part as a Southern kid heads North for a harsh awakening that drops his anchor. Ultimately, “AIN’T” bulks up the track as it chronicles the stark juxtaposition with small-town life.

“here lies country music” sets up this conflict. An acoustic-guitar/pedal-steel elegy for what Nashville was, it addresses the abandonment of everything that made true country great, bloated into hackneyed cliché or rejected by the pop programmers who know better.

That moment, equal parts memoir and personal emergence, feeds into the title track. The front half is quiet basic-songwriter fare, but the back half rebels against the formula. As the intensity builds, it’s a declaration of his own making. This is not Michael Hardy the kid with a publishing deal but HARDY the artist, determined to tell his truth his way, to embrace all the music that’s pumping through his veins.

“SOLD OUT” throws down about the shows crammed with kids the programmers don’t realize exist. These fans exist like those of Outlaw Country before them: not interested in the business, just the people making songs for their lives. It’s a revolution.

The culminating “THE REDNECK SONG,” a lumbering stomp that opens with a phased banjo/peckerwood vocal, pledges fidelity to a way of life on a track that feels like a land pirate’s sea shanty. Proud and celebratory, its swagger is more good-natured than punching down. It closes with the self-aware confession, “To you we may be a stereotype/ But it’s the redneck life for me” as a dizzying guitar solo spirals into the ether. Listeners can pick the side they want to live on.

A manifesto for the people mainstream marketers don’t want to take the time to actually understand, the mockingbird & THE CROW is powerful recognition of the same people who once loved Hank Jr. and the hard-rock bands that lived beyond the city limits.

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